I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”
I’m writing this in a darkened hotel room in Arlington, Virginia on Memorial Day 2017. My teen daughter is still asleep in her bed. The morning has dawned misty and grey, the lights fuzzy blurs below us, our peek of the Potomac barely visible. We have been in town to minister, though we also took time to be tourists. Friday was Arlington, Saturday was the Vietnam Memorial, the WWII Memorial, and part of Air & Space. Sunday was ministry to bikers, a good number of them veterans, especially Vietnam Vets. Because of the timing of our homeschool year, Saturday was my older daughter’s last day of school for the year, and we made it a field trip.
When we were at Arlington, I looked out over the acres upon acres of tombstones, and I cried.
At the Wall, I looked at the cards left by children, the pictures of the dead left by families, and I cried.
I cried giving the history lesson. Standing in the Pentagon parking lot yesterday, watching women from their 30s to their 90s astride motorcycles in the parade – Gold Star Mothers and Wives – I clapped and I cried.
I began this post with the oath that soldiers take on enlisting in the Army. The oath doesn’t change if one is drafted, nor is it different between the branches of the US Military. In the years following WWII, the primary foreign enemy was the Soviet Union and its desire to spread communism throughout the world. There was fear in this Cold War era of imminent nuclear war that would wipe out the entire world and, given the former USSR’s growing nuclear arsenal, an American victory wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. To the American people, the spread of communism threatened the loss of our capitalist economic system, the loss of all the freedoms we enjoy, the end of democracy as we understand it, and the beginning of totalitarianism.
Vietnam happened in this Cold War Era. Ho Chi Minh had gone to Europe for college and had discovered communism while there. His beloved country was under imperial rule, first by Japan, then again by France after the war, and he had a genuine desire to make things better. (Even the world’s worst leaders start off with a desire to make things “better,” whatever that looks like for them.) The US could not stand by and watch communism take over our South Vietnamese allies, and after success at thwarting the communist threat in Korea, involvement, I’m sure, seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.
The US enlisted some and drafted some. In those days before the draft lottery, the government would draft the number of men they needed, starting with 1 January birthdays and going until it had its quota. If your birthday was after 1 September, your chances of avoiding the draft were pretty good. Then 1970 came along, and with it, the draft lottery. At this point, it didn’t matter when your birthday was. If you were smart enough and your family wealthy enough to send you to college, you could take an educational deferment, but once you failed out, dropped out, or graduated, your deferment was history. In your four years there, you hoped and prayed for an end to the war. Sadly, a disproportionate number of minority and poorer young men didn’t have college as an option, so to war they went – thousands of miles away from home, momma, family, and all that was familiar and comfortable.
In fulfilling the oath they took, they fought the “foreign enemy,” the growing spread of communism. Yet, the Viet Cong were fighting a foreign enemy, too, and they were fighting for their own independence and “independence” for all of the Vietnamese people. (We know with our 20/20 hindsight that “independence” doesn’t exist in totalitarian governments, but such a perspective was not in their grasp at the time.) Not only did our men go and fight in a foreign land against an ideology that was anathema to our American ideals, but some of them died for it. Do you get that? In fighting against the spread of totalitarianism and communism, in the struggle to protect and defend our constitution, they died. They. Died.
You know what I find most disgusting, most disgraceful, most galling, most heartbreaking? They died fighting for those freedoms that their fellow citizens used to verbally and physically assault their comrades-in-arms when they returned home from the war. They died so that a bunch of idealistic college students and housewives who’d watched the war come into their living rooms each night could spit on and cuss at and revile the men with whom they served and even the men and women with whom they didn’t serve. In a totalitarian government, spitting on or insulting an employee of the government (e.g., a soldier) would be cause for severe punishment, anything from being sent to a “re-education camp” to instant death. (By 1970/71, my dad’s CO told his men not to wear their uniforms off-base for fear of assault – and my dad never even went to ‘Nam; he served state-side. But he still would have been accused of being a “murderer” and “baby-killer,” because the media portrayed all soldiers as such.)
Those soldiers, sailors, airmen, corpsmen, and nurses whose names are on the Wall in Washington died to protect our freedoms.
Those soldiers, sailors, airmen, and corpsmen who are memorialized in Washington, DC and various other memorials around the country died to protect our freedoms. Every single one of them died. They died to protect us, they died fighting to preserve our American ideals and our American way of life, one of which is the freedom of speech we take so dreadfully for granted. They died so we can protest injustice, they died so we can articulate our opinions about the sitting government officials (whoever they may be and whenever they may serve), they died so we can share our faith and beliefs with others, they died so we can respectfully disagree, they died even so some cowardly dip-shit celebrity or clueless college kid can burn, step on, and disgrace the flag under which they served, fought, and died. They died for the freedom I have to key these words, sharing my own opinions and beliefs.
As my daughter and I stood together on Saturday morning, our elbows resting on a segment of the WWII Memorial, looking at the states and territories represented over on the Pacific side of the memorial, observing all the people, listening to a band play music against the backdrop of the fountain, I shared these thoughts with her, shared with her that there is no freedom we have as citizens in our country for which someone has not sacrificed their life. It’s for us. I struggled to teach this all-important lesson without breaking completely down in tears; it was hard. I had to pause and regain my composure a few times. It’s important, though, that she understands and appreciates how she came to have the freedoms she does in this segment of history in which she lives so that, hopefully, she’ll never take these freedoms for granted. She must understand how our nation’s history has brought us to this place and these privileges – and responsibilities – we enjoy.
On Sunday, we ministered to bikers, most of them veterans, and a large percentage of those were Vietnam vets. If you’re like me and didn’t study the Vietnam War in school and/or were a baby or born after the war, you may or may not be aware of the lack of welcome these men received when they returned to the States. After WWII, there were ticker tape parades, and a grateful America welcomed the soldiers home with open arms and tumultuous cheers. The Vietnam vets returned home to cold shoulders and tumultuous… jeers. Our weekend road captain instructed us to “Welcome them home. Give them the welcome they never received.” I quickly got adept at identifying the Vietnam insignias and looking for the armed services pins and patches. Hearing, “Welcome home, Marine. Thank you for your service. I’m very grateful” proved to be so transforming to the men who heard it. Their faces changed, relaxing into ones of reflected gratitude and deep humility.
These men deserve our gratitude, our warm welcome, our warm reception. It doesn’t matter what side of the war you’d have been on. My daughter and I determined that we’d have likely protested the war, likely have disagreed with US involvement, but coming from a long family tradition of military service – going back at least to the US Civil War – there is no way we ever could have shown disrespect to the men wearing the uniform; they were doing their jobs, fighting for their country, fighting for our rights.
When you see the uniform, see the hats, see the insignias, stop and say, “Thank you.” When you see the distinctive yellow and red bars that denote a Vietnam vet, welcome him home. Sure, it may feel weird to say that to someone you don’t know 40+ years after their homecoming, but do it, anyway. Say, “Thank you” to all who serve or have served. Remember that they likely lost someone on the battlefield they cared about and respected. Show the love, show the appreciation.